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The Corner at the Center of the World:
Traditional Metaphysics in a Late Tale of Henry James


J. P. Morgan

4,116 words

“The human individual is, at one and the same time, much more and much less than is ordinarily supposed in the West; he is greater by reason of his possibilities of indefinite extension beyond the corporeal modality, . . . but he is also much less since, far from constituting a complete and sufficient being in himself, he is only an exterior manifestation, a fleeting appearance clothing the true being, which in no way affects the essence of the latter in its immutability.”
— René Guénon, “Oriental Metaphysics [2]” 

“Time, space, and natural law hold for me suggestions of intolerable bondage, and I can form no picture of emotional satisfaction which does not involve their defeat — especially the defeat of time, so that one may merge oneself with the whole historic stream and be wholly emancipated from the transient and the ephemeral.
H. P. Lovecraft, Letter to August Derleth (21 November 1930)

“There’s only one corner of the universe you can be sure of improving, and that’s your own self…[by] the sacrifice of self-will to make room for knowledge of God.”
— Aldous Huxley, Time Must Have a Stop

When last we looked in on James and Lovecraft, we found them occupying rather similar positions: wandering the streets of New York, “almost gasp[ing] with a sense of isolation” [1] in a city transformed by immigration from a colony of the Nordic race to some loathsome futuristic Babylon.

Returning to their respective home bases, they were in quite different situations. Lovecraft returned to Providence and was taken in by his aunts, living in an increasingly shabby series of genteel houses, James, however, had not merely the funds of a reasonably successful writer [2] to provide for a comfortable residence; his share in the family real estate was making considerable gains under the surprisingly wise management of his nephew, Harry James (New York attorney and budding money manager, not the big band trumpeter).

After receiving some particularly good investment news (“Very interesting & valuable to me is your news of the new Syracuse arrangement… I feel as if it has placed my declining years a l’abri of destitution” [3]) James turned his hand to what would be his last great ghost story — “The Jolly Corner” [4] — that re-imagines his recent homecoming through the egotistical musings and nocturnal wanderings (in his luxurious family mansion on once-fashionable Irving Place, not in the street, like Lovecraft, whose “declining years” would also not escape destitution either) of a character who seems to combine Henry‘s imagination with Harry‘s grasping business sense — exactly what Lovecraft lacked in order to make his way in the new, capitalistic world.

Spencer Brydon returns to the city and house of his birth, after years of typically Jamesian vague epicurean wanderings in Europe, in order to look over his property — one building in the middle of the street, suitable for a lucrative remodeling, the other abutting the avenue, which he thinks of as the “Jolly Corner.” Finding his fellow Americans boring, he spends his time exploring his properties, occasionally indulging in gossip and assurances of mutual admiration with his chaste confidante, Alice. She it is, however, who sets the weird plot in motion:

Once Alice Silverton’s conditional words — “if [you] had but stayed at home” — fix themselves in Brydon’s consciousness, he responds to them by imagining that, somewhere within the recesses of the deserted birthplace on the jolly corner, his alter ego, the might have been self, lurks. With his newly discovered business acumen working as a catalyst for curiosity, Brydon yearns to track him down, confront him.[5]

What’s going on in this uncanny story? Of course, there have been all the usual interpretations; Freudian (James confronting, or not, the childhood “wound” which kept him out of the army, and perhaps marriage as well), Jungian (an elderly man — 56! — seeks wholeness by confronting his shadow), Marxist (James realizes the true face of American capitalism isn’t his family’s genteel wealth but the grasping robber barons [6]), and so on.

I think that here, once again, we can profit from looking at things from a Traditional point of view. To do so, let’s lay out some of the puzzling, or at least noticeable, elements in this tale.

The first thing we need to notice — we can hardly avoid it, it dominates the text of the first part — is Brydon’s extraordinary egotism. Right from the start, he tells us of how silly everyone is, asking for what he “thinks” about New York — “my thoughts [are] almost altogether about something that concerns only myself.” Why is he here at all? “He had come — putting the thing pompously — to look at his “property,” sounding a Stirnerian note. And he freely admits to coming home from “a selfish, frivolous, scandalous life. And you see what it has made of me.” Indeed, ‘me’ is what it is all about: “He found all things come back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and “turned out,” if he had not so, at the outset, given [a financial career] up.”

And fortunately, for such a massive egotist, he has a confidante, Alice, who can assure him, if he had “turned out” differently, even as a “brute, a black stranger,” a “monster,” even: that he was “good enough,” for, sounding like Seinfeld’s mother, “How should I not have liked you?” Besides, she notes with approval, “You don’t care for anything but yourself.” [7]

Armed with such support, Brydon affirms his curious whim as if he were a Grail knight swearing to perform some Quest for his Lady: “But I do want to see him… And I can. And I shall.” [8]

But at the last moment, he hits on different, rather more “cunning” plan, as Blackadder’s manservant Baldrick might say: rather than confront the spectre, he will one-up the spirit by exercising the supreme upper-class WASP virtue: discretion. No coward ever retreated from the battlefield with more self-respect intact, even enhanced:

. . . though moved and privileged as, I believe, it has never been given to man, I retire, I renounce–never, on my honour, to try again. So rest for ever–and let me!

After all, he goal all along was to have “saved his dignity and kept his name, in such a case, out of the papers. . . .”

Although the spectre won’t, as it happens, let him leave without confrontation — resulting in another cowardly act, fainting — Alice arrives to rest his head in her comforting lap, and assure him that:

“You came to yourself” she beautifully smiled.

“Ah, I’ve come to myself now — thanks to you, dearest. But this brute, with his awful face — this brute’s a black stranger. He’s none of me, even as I might have been,” Brydon sturdily declared . . .

[W]ell, he must have been, you see, less dreadful to me. And it may have pleased him that I pitied him.” . . . “He has a million a year,” he lucidly added. “But he hasn’t you.”

“And he isn’t — no, he isn’t — you!” she murmured, as he drew her to his breast. [All emphases here and in the previous quote are James’]

End on note of domestic bliss.

Lovecraft’s narrators, by contrast, seem to err on the opposite side, foolhardiness. They may faint, but only after a determined facing of the truth, no matter how many warnings they may have gotten, and how much they latter hope for sweet forgetfulness or death.

Next, what is the house? The very first impression we are given of the house, as he begins to make his nocturnal rounds, evokes the traditional symbolism of Universal Manifestation as a graph of indefinite points along horizontal and vertical axes, or as a tapestry woven of warp and woof.

Traditional Metaphysics, as presented by René Guénon in a series of works that began appearing shortly after James’ death [9], envisions the Totality of Existence, or ‘Universal Manifestation,’ as, symbolically, a three dimensional grid, formed by the intersection of three planes, representing an indefinite series states of being. The individual being, the human being, for instance, is as it were a line drawn from the center to the periphery, along one possible state of being. But there are, of course, other and higher states, the acquisition of which is the goal of spiritual development. This can be thought of as a return from the periphery to the Center, so that the individual being has manifested all the possibilities of one level, and from which it can ascend to higher levels. In Sufi terms, the being who has actualized these possibilities is Primordial Man, in effect, the New Adam (the old Adam having left the Center, the Garden, and its central axis, or Tree) while the being that has further achieved all the higher states is Universal Man (the Adam Kadmon of the Qabbala).

As Brydon enters the house each night:

He always caught the first effect of the steel point of his stick on the old marble of the hall pavement, large black-and-white squares that he remembered as the admiration of his childhood and that had then made in him, as he now saw, for the growth of an early conception of style.

There is an analogy between Universal Manifestation and personal development, though like all analogies it is inverted: physical manifestation entails diversity and a spreading out; personal development a return to simplicity. This is because by returning to the Primordial State, the Garden of Eden, one reaches the Center of the horizontal world, from which the vertical assent to higher possibilities and forms can be made.

This effect was the dim reverberating tinkle as of some far-off bell hung who should say where? — in the depths of the house, of the past, of that mystical other world that might have flourished for him had he not, for weal or woe, abandoned it. On this impression he did ever the same thing; he put his stick noiselessly away in a corner–feeling the place once more in the likeness of some great glass bowl, all precious concave crystal, set delicately humming by the play of a moist finger round its edge. The concave crystal held, as it were, this mystical other world, and the indescribably fine murmur of its rim was the sigh there, the scarce audible pathetic wail to his strained ear, of all the old baffled forsworn possibilities.

The image of a bowl of precious crystal, within which is manifested a pathetic little tone, by the tracing of a finger along its rim, is remarkable, and sounds like it ought to be a Traditional symbol of Universal Manifestation, but I can’t really place it anywhere; here, Henry may have made a more original contribution to mysticism than either his father Henry or brother William!

The house itself clearly embodies the horizontal and vertical dimensions of universal manifestation, the three-dimensional unfolding of indefinite possibilities on each of an equally indefinite hierarchy of levels, forming an indefinite multiplicity of stages or stations. Such symbolism is often fairly explicitly manifested in the design of traditional buildings or dwellings, such as the Native American teepee (the hole in the apex of which allows smoke, or the soul, to escape) or the Muslim house built around an courtyard open to the sky. [10]

As Brydon “crapes” about his house (Irish servant dialect humor!) he finds himself confronting his obsession:

that of his opening a door behind which he would have made sure of finding nothing, a door into a room shuttered and void, and yet so coming, with a great suppressed start, on some quite erect confronting presence, something planted in the middle of the place and facing him through the dusk.

The Center of the Primordial State is indeed associated in the world’s traditions with erect presences of one sort or another, especially trees or castles, planted in the center of a Garden — as in Genesis — or an invisible or inaccessible Island — as in the Grail Legend. Dusk, of course, is the preeminent symbol of the liminal state where transformations can take place. And do we not have hear an echo of Lovecraft’s “The Shuttered Room”? [11]

Reaching the top floor, where “the light he had set down on the mantel of the next room would have to figure his sword” — again, the ironic Grail note — he finds his goal:.

The door between the rooms was open, and from the second another door opened to a third. These rooms, as he remembered, gave all three upon a common corridor as well, but there was a fourth, beyond them, without issue save through the preceding.

Here one also recalls the three stages of reality or consciousness, analogous to waking, dreaming and deep sleep, and the fourth, Turya, of primal bliss. [12]

He had come into sight of the door in which the brief chain of communication ended and which he now surveyed from the nearer threshold, the one not directly facing it. Placed at some distance to the left of this point, it would have admitted him to the last room of the four, the room without other approach or egress, had it not, to his intimate conviction, been closed since his former visitation, the matter probably of a quarter of an hour before. He stared with all his eyes at the wonder of the fact, arrested again where he stood and again holding his breath while he sounded his sense. Surely it had been subsequently closed — that is it had been on his previous passage indubitably open! [James’s emphases]

As we have seen, his smug, self-regarding “discretion” allowed him to refuse to open that door, to pass, it would appear, a test set up for him since he had last seen the open door, and instead to retreat back to the lobby, only to faint when the spectre does appear, unwanted, and block his exit.

And as we also saw, after his failure and faint, he awakens in the lap of his motherly confidante:

on the lowest degree of the staircase, the rest of his long person remaining stretched on his old black-and-white slabs. They were cold, these marble squares of his youth; but he somehow was not, in this rich return of consciousness — the most wonderful hour, little by little, that he had ever known, leaving him, as it did, so gratefully, so abysmally passive, and yet as with a treasure of intelligence waiting all round him for quiet appropriation; dissolved, he might call it, in the air of the place and producing the golden glow of a late autumn afternoon. He had come back, yes — come back from further away than any man but himself had ever travelled; but it was strange how with this sense what he had come back to seemed really the great thing, and as if his prodigious journey had been all for the sake of it.

Back on the lowest degree of human development, yet congratulating himself like a Monty Python knight on his remarkable and triumphant journey, and rejoicing in the return of his egoic, and egotistical, daylight consciousness.

Finally, we must ask the main question: why is the ghost mutilated?

This is just classic misdirection, as in a magician’s trick. Why are the ghost’s fingers mutilated has absorbed the critics. But if the ghost is some representation of the narrator, then the ghost is like an image in a mirror. If the ghost’s fingers are mutilated, rather than ask “Gee, why are the fingers in the mirror mutilated?” we should ask, “Why are the narrator’s fingers mutilated?”

I would suggest that the spectre in the doorway (the “Thing on the Doorstep” or “Lurker on the Threshold”) is NOT the thing behind the door. Brydon, having fled the chance of reaching the Center, is confronted rather by its inversion, the paltry ego which, however grand in worldly terms, is a sadly limited sight — a mutilation, in fact — in comparison to the fully developed Primordial Man who reigns at the Center. Brydon is far too proud of his single possibility, and perceives the fullness of the Primordial Man as a mutilation rather than the fulfillment of all possibilities.

Rather than standing erect in the primal darkness on the top floor (like the tree, or ithyphallic god, at the Center of the Garden; the ‘darkness’ of course is another traditional symbol-through-inversion, the overwhelming fullness of Universal Manifestation symbolized by darkness, like a strong light that blinds rather than illuminates) he awakens lying flat on the ground, in the morning sun, on the lap of his motherly confidante.

Brydon has in effect chosen to remain on the level he was born — the squares making up the floor of his childhood home — rather than move forward into the center (Primordial Man), nor, consequently, to rise from there to a higher level, eventually actualizing all possibilities of manifestation (Universal Man). [13] In the words of E. M. Forster (cited with approval by Camille Paglia): “Maimed creatures alone can breathe in Henry James’ pages — maimed yet specialized.” [14]

Or, as St. Mark asks, “What would it profit a man to gain the whole world [to say nothing of a real estate development, even one on Irving Place] and to lose his [chance of a fully developed] soul?”

Speaking of the New Testament, Brydon may be fruitfully contrasted with an earlier figure from classic American literature: Melville’s Bartleby. While H. Bruce Franklin [15] has explored Bartleby’s parallels to Christ and to Hindu asceticism — transmitted through Emerson’s Transcendentalism — I think we can even more closely identify him with Guénon and Evola’s realized being, who embodies

. . . the style of an impersonal activity; to prefer what is essential and real in a higher sense, free from the trappings of sentimentalism and from pseudo-intellectual super-structures — and yet all this must be done by remaining upright, feeling the presence in life of that which leads beyond life, drawing from it precise norms of behaviour and action. [16]

Bartleby has gone so far beyond Brydon that he no longer has a house or home at all, living surreptitiously in his employer’s office (one can’t really say “at his job”) and, ultimately, lying in a prison yard and staring at the wall. While Bartleby is famous for his refusal to perform any of his employer‘s tasks with his “I would prefer not to,” he also, at one point, insists that rather than do so he “would prefer to be stationary,” making him functionally identical to the Chakravartin, the Realized Man who rules the universe from his unmoving position at the center. [17]

Bartleby’s erstwhile employer, who narrates his tale, is clearly a member of what William James would later call the “healthy-minded” and, for all his sympathy and somewhat grudging efforts on Bartleby’s behalf, unable to finally understand him. [18] He suggests that Bartleby’s melancholy nature must have been amplified unduly by his tenure in the Dead Letter Office; yet it is precisely this daily confrontation with death, that is, the transience of what Salinger’s Buddy Glass called “this goddamned phenomenal world” that enables one to rise above it. Unlike James’ “discrete” Brydon, Bartleby has confronted death and used that extreme situation to leverage himself into the Center, erect and stationary, at rest as the world revolves around him. [19]

And his famous, sentimental conclusion — “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” — would better be directed against such all too human specimens as Brydon. As for Bartleby, he has indeed “remain[ed] upright, feeling the presence in life of that which leads beyond life, drawing from it precise norms of behaviour and action.”


1. Henry James, The American Scene (London, Chapman & Hall, 1907), p. 86.

2. And what greater irony than that the real nob, James, could make a living as a writer, while the impoverished Lovecraft sabotaged his career over and over again in order to keep up the pretense of being a “gentleman” amateur; one recalls more recently the uber-WASP John Cheever, who at age eleven “promised his proud Yankee parents never to seek fame or wealth with his literary career;” see Blake Bailey, Cheever: A life (New York: Knopf, 2009), p. 596.

3. Quoted from Michael Anesko, Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 42.

4. 1908, with countless reprints. I am using the one on pp. 337-370 of American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub (New York: Library of America, 2009).

5 Ibid, p. 43.

6. There is in fact a curious contemporary photo of J. P. Morgan which James may have seen while consulting over the illustrations in the recent New York Edition of his works, where Morgan seems to be about to gut the viewer with a hand, like that of the spectre in James’ tale, that indeed is missing two fingers. See Adeline R. Tinter: The twentieth-century world of Henry James: changes in his work after 1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), pp. 44ff.

7. Again, Lovecraft, unlike the confirmed bachelor Brydon, actually had a wife, the Russian-born Brooklyn Jewess, Sonia Greene, who, unlike Harry James, was unsuccessful in business and left Lovecraft in New York, not with Brydon’s choice of buildings, one to remodel, (on Irving Place, not tenements for Syrian immigrants and the impecunious Lovecraft, surely, but for the declining remnants of Old New York) the other to indulge in nocturnal ghost hunts, but with a succession of tenements where Lovecraft would stint and starve while tormented by the “mad piping” not of Elder Gods but of Syrian immigrants.

8. If not a knight, then the Fisher King, who was punished for his pride in combat with an unmanning wound, like James, or the mutilated fingers of the spectre. See Julius Evola, The Mystery of the Grail (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996; Chapter 16: “The Test of Pride.”

9. See, for example, Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines (Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues, 1921); Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta (L’homme et son devenir selon le Vêdânta, 1925); Symbolism of the Cross (Le symbolisme de la croix, 1931); and The Multiple States of the Being (Les états multiples de l’Être, 1932), all of which exist in excellent English editions produced and kept in print by the estimable James Wetmore and his press, Sophia Perennis, in Ghent, New York.

10. See, for example, Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Door in the Sky (Princeton, 1997).

11. See Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition, Chapter 1, “The Tree, The Serpent and the Titans.”

12. See Man and His Becoming according to the Vedânta.

13. Brydon’s egocentrism is to be entirely distinguished from the idea of the Absolute Ego which Evola had developed as a philosophical concept long before encountering Guénon. “In his full possession of power, man reaches absolute indifference, so that it makes no sense for him to act any more” [Evola, quoted by H. T. Hansen in his “Introduction” to Men Among the Ruins (Inner Traditions, 2002, p. 30). The latter needs nothing, from a feeling of already having enough, of being, indeed, above both fullness and lack, indifferent to both, while Brydon continually needs the approval of the world — “I am good, aren’t I.” He is dedicated to “preserve his good name,” while as Coomaraswamy observes, “Blessed is the man on whose tomb can be written Hic jacet nemo” [Here lies no one]. (A. K. Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism [New York: Philosophical Library, n.d.], p. 30).

14.  In Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 616.

15.  The relevant chapter on Bartleby from his out of print monograph, The Wake of the Gods: Melville’s Mythology can be found along with the story in Melville’s Short Novels (New York: Norton, 2002).

16.  Men Among the Ruins, p. 220.

17. See Guénon’s King of the World (Ghent, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis, 2005).

18. As Evola notes, the philistine thinks that the realized man, the Magus, would be rich and exercise all kinds of magic powers, being incapable of understanding either that a disinterest in all such frivolity is a prerequisite for spiritual progress — “I would prefer not to” — as well as the “boomerang” effect of actions in the subtle realm having untoward results in this world; see Hermetic Tradition, Chapter 51, “The Invisible Masters”

19. Readers of William Burroughs will recall that Bartleby’s prison was even then known colloquially as “The Tombs.” It’s true, that our last glimpse of Bartleby is lying in the prison yard, but again, the principle of inversion is at work here; the employer’s limited perspective can only grasp Bartleby’s position in a distorted way — Guénon, in Man and His Becoming, has some curious speculations about how the “delivered man” [the mukta] would seem to vanish from out three-dimensional vision — while also paralleling Brydon’s opposite movement, from his failed trial to lying on the floor, snugly cradled in Alice’s lap.